Hillsborough, N.C. — A judge Tuesday sentenced Mohammed Taheri-azar to 26 to 33 years in prison for plowing into a UNC crowd and injuring nine people in March 2006.
Taheri-azar, 25, pleaded guilty to nine counts of attempted murder earlier this month for the March 3, 2006, attack at The Pit, a popular outdoor gathering spot at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The sentence came after several victims had taken the stand to tell Superior Court Judge Carl Fox how the attack has affected their lives. Other victims sent prepared statements that Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall read for the court.
Taheri-azar's younger sister, Lida Taheri-Azar, 22, also spoke at the hearing and cried while reading her written statement.
The first to speak was Betty Hood, who was in court on behalf of her son, Larry Michael Allsep. He was unable to attend the hearing. Allsep, a former professor at UNC, suffered multiple injuries, including a broken wrist and tail bone.
"When (Taheri-azar's Jeep) got close, (my son) smelled the fumes and the gas, and it accelerated," Hood told the court. "He went up on the hood and was thrown off."
Hood said she first heard about the attack when a professor called her. The professor didn't want her to be surprised when she saw the footage on TV, she said.
"The most horrifying sight you can see is your son on a stretcher," she said. "I feel like (Taheri-azar) should be put away for life."
Susan Burgin said she was walking to class when Taheri-azar's rented Jeep Cherokee came toward her. She was able to jump out of the way without being directly hit, but she suffered a sore elbow and spasms in her neck, she said.
"I never fail to think about (what happened) when I walk by that spot," she said. "I'm never going to be 100 percent sure again that I'm completely safe."
Burgin said she still feels tense when there is a vehicle behind her when she's walking.
Karen Harman told Fox specific details of what happened that day.
"He hit the gas. I heard the engine roar. ... I heard and felt the thud as the car hit me," she said. "I was on the ground clutching my knee in pain."
After the attack, Harman said she was frightened of any car movement or sound. She still feels nervous when she sees a Jeep Cherokee, she said, a sentiment other victims shared.
"This incident made me feel isolated and vulnerable," she said. "I no longer feel as safe in the world."
Woodall read statements from several other victims, who shared similar stories.
Taheri-azar declined to speak during the hearing, except to say: "The defense rests." However, his younger sister, Lida, took the stand.
"I promise, he's one of a kind," she said. "In high school, he was the smartest kid on the football team (and) he saved my life when I was drowning once."
Lida partially blamed her brother's actions on a family friend who was a "bad role model" for him, she said. The friend was a doctor, she said.
Lida also told the judge how the crime affected her life. At one point, she was scared to go back to school, where she was studying criminal justice. In several classes, professors and a guest speaker talked about her brother's case, which made her cry, she said.
Lida said she knows her brother did wrong, and she expressed relief that no one was killed.
"I just, I'm sorry," she said, fighting back tears.
Taheri-azar's mother and father, who were at the hearing, declined to make statements to the court.
Woodall urged Fox to give Taheri-azar the stiffest punishment possible because of the harm his actions did to his victims and the community as a whole.
"The defendant used this occasion to terrorize an entire community," Woodall said. "The victimization reached far and wide in this case. He should pay dearly for that."
Taheri-azar's public defender, James Williams, argued that he should not get the toughest penalty because he took responsibility for his actions, including calling authorities after the incident and later pleading guilty.
"While I don't want to minimize what happened, this is not a situation where anyone was killed," Williams said.
Taheri-azar did not kill anyone, but he was trying to, Fox said while making his ruling.
"None of these people are dead, but it's not through your kindness or change of heart," Fox said, addressing Taheri-azar.
Fox expressed hope that Taheri-azar would someday feel remorse for what he did.
"By doing this act, you have robbed yourself and your family of what would be the best years of your life," Fox said.
Why he did it
Taheri-azar has said that he drove the Jeep into the crowd to avenge the killings of Muslims by the U.S. across the world.
After the attack, he told police he expected to die as a result of his actions – either by people at the scene attacking him or police shooting him.
Since he expected to die, he left a letter at his house. He told authorities about it after his arrest.
"He's very clear in this letter that his intent was to kill people," Woodall said.
Taheri-azar rented the Jeep because he thought it could do the most damage, Woodall said.